The earliest date when oilsands crude from western Canada could begin flowing to Saint John is being pushed back two years by Energy East pipeline proponent TransCanada Corp.

The company announced the new in-service date of 2020 on Thursday, as it officially announced it is abandoning plans for a terminal in Cacouna, Que., as part of the $12-billion project.

Beluga whales are found in the St. Lawrence River in the Cacouna area and a recommended change in status of the whales to an endangered species factored into the company's decision to ditch its plans for a terminal there.

"Our goal has been to strike a balance between TransCanada's commitment to minimize environmental impacts and the imperative to build modern infrastructure to safely transport the energy Canadians need and consume every day," said TransCanada president Russ Girling in a release.

The company says it is exploring other options for a terminal in Quebec.

TransCanada Corp. says any amendments to its application based on its evaluation of other options in Quebec are expected to be filed with the National Energy Board in the fourth quarter of 2015.

The proposed 4,600-kilometre pipeline would carry 1.1 million barrels a day of oilsands crude from western Canada to refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick. It would terminate at Irving Oil's Canaport facility, which is located at the entrance to Saint John Harbour.

The Quebec government has imposed a number of conditions on TransCanada for it to accept the project. One of the conditions is that the project generate economic benefits for Quebec.

'Minor hiccup'

At the New Brunswick Legislature, the Liberal government said the new delay isn't a big worry.

"This is a great project," Energy Minister Donald Arseneault said. "It's still going forward. It's just a minor hiccup."

Premier Brian Gallant has enthusiastically supported the pipeline, visiting TransCanada's facilities in Alberta shortly after taking office, and meeting with the Ontario and Quebec premiers to keep them onside.

Even so, the Opposition Progressive Conservatives have questioned Gallant's commitment to the project, and energy critic Jake Stewart says he's worried the delay created by Quebec will give the New Brunswick premier cold feet too.

"I'm worried that political pressures in Quebec are having an impact and I'm worried about this government here today going down that same road," he said.

'It's a $12 billion-project, so it's not going to be just that easy to get it all through. So there's going to be some hurdles. This was one of them.' - Donald Arseneault, N.B. energy minister

At the same time, Green Party Leader David Coon says the delay gives Gallant more time to apply more regulatory scrutiny to the project.

"It does give the province the opportunity now to do a proper environmental assessment under our own Clean Environment Act," Coon said.

The pipeline will bring Alberta crude to Saint John, where it will either be exported through a terminal co-owned by TransCanada and Irving Oil Ltd., or refined at Irving's refinery.

Arseneault says he's not worried that the delay will affect the government's job-creation and deficit-reduction targets.

"It's a $12 billion-project, so it's not going to be just that easy to get it all through," he said. "So there's going to be some hurdles. This was one of them.

"We anticipated it was coming, but we're going to continue with TransCanada and the rest of the jurisdictions to make sure that we can see this project come through as quickly as we can."

Meanwhile, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick says with the changes to the Quebec section of the project, TransCanada has a "moral responsibility" to withdraw its National Energy Board application entirely.

The council says TransCanada clearly hasn't thought the project through, "throwing a dart at a map" to choose its Quebec export terminal location. 

The National Energy Board has received 1,805 applications to participate in hearings on the proposed pipeline.